Romans 5:7 has long puzzled me. “Scarcely (or, with difficulty) would someone die for a righteous man; though for a good man someone perhaps would dare to die.”
As a casual reader of scripture, I thought the thinking in that verse was counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t it be the good person that someone would die for? If you were in a situation to sacrifice your life, wouldn’t it make sense for you to sacrifice it for the person that in some sense deserved it?
James Dunn says that Paul has in mind here with the term “righteous man” his own past. Paul knew well his life as a self-righteous Jew. Nobody needed to die on behalf of that person, from the perspective of the self-righteous, and nobody wanted to die for that person, from the perspective of the potential martyr.
Dunn points out that the grammar is rough between this sentence and the next. He believes that Paul’s train of thought may have been broken, and he picked up his dictation without clear thought of the previous grammatical structure. Or, Dunn suggests, perhaps Paul realized that he may have overstated his point. When he said that no one would give his life for a righteous man, he seemed to exclude any form of martyrdom. So then he add that, perhaps, for that rare man–the truly good man, as opposed to the self-righteous man–someone might dare to die.
But the significance lies not so much in the relationship between the righteous man and the good man, but between both of them and the next category, the sinners. Paul is saying that self-sacrifice on behalf of the righteous is unknown, although we might be able to envision a situation where someone might give themselves up on behalf of a good person. But God went so far beyond our understanding of martyrdom by sending his son Jesus to die on behalf of a world full of hateful sinners who were God’s enemies. The most precious was sacrificed on behalf of the most worthless.
But one of the beauties of the gospel is that while we were once worthless, the preciousness of Christ has been transferred to us and we have been made truly righteous in our standing before God. While we were once powerless (v.6), godless (v. 6), and sinners (v. 8), we now have the righteousness of Christ (v. 9) and can be safe from the wrath of God (v. 9), for we have now received reconciliation with God (v. 10-11).
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.